Terror sways voters - just not the way terrorists want

Terror sways voters - just not the way terrorists want

November 2, 20182 min read

Those hoping to use fear to sway elections are in for a shock come election day.

Terrorist attacks meant to suppress voter turnout — like the ethnically and racially-motivated attacks in Pittsburgh and Louisville, Kentucky in October — often have the opposite effect according to a study published by Augusta University researcher Dr. Lance Hunter.

The study, published in “Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression” in 2017, examined voter turnout following terrorist attacks in seven major urban centers across the United States over the course of four decades. The study found that attacks not only increase voter turnout, but that the severity of an attack may also impact how more voters show up at the polls.

“Severity was measured as the number of individuals wounded in attacks and the amount of property value damage that occurred due to attacks,” said Hunter, assistant professor of Political Science in the Katherine Reese Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. “We found that more severe terrorist attacks were associated with higher voter turnout.”

The frequency of terror attacks also increased voter turnout, with every 10 attacks contributing to a 1.7 percent increase in turnout for gubernatorial elections and a 1.8 percent turnout for senate elections.

“When the terrorist attacks variable was set at its minimum level (0 attacks) expected voter turnout was 28% for gubernatorial elections and 30% for senatorial elections,” Hunter said. “However, expected voter turnout increased to 43% for gubernatorial elections and 44% for senatorial elections as the number of terrorist attacks increased to its maximum level (80). 

Hunter attributed these findings to the notion that more severe terrorist attacks tend to have a greater psychological impact on citizens. That impact, he theorized, leads citizens of affected areas to pay greater attention to their political environment and encourages them to vote in greater numbers.

“In other words, terrorism makes politics more salient for citizens,” he said. “As they become more attuned to the politics of the day, they are more likely to turnout to vote.”

The data, which looked at elections held from 1970 to 2012, found that the type of election did not lessen or increase voter turnout following a terrorist attack. Voters in affected areas turned out in greater numbers for both midterm and presidential elections. Voter turnout is typically higher in presidential elections, regardless of attacks.

Contact Nick Garrett at (706) 993-6411 or ngarret1@augusta.edu to schedule an interview with Dr. Hunter on this topic. 

Connect with:
  • Lance Hunter, PhD
    Lance Hunter, PhD Professor of Political Science

    Dr. Lance Hunter studies the connection between terrorism and political stability in democracies.

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